Emma and Harriet make a charitable visit to a poor family near Mr. Elton’s vicarage. On the way, Harriet expresses her surprise that Emma has not married, and Emma explains her resolution to remain single. The poor family they assist engages their compassion, but soon the girls’ thoughts turn to Mr. Elton, who meets them on the road. Emma attempts to leave Mr. Elton and Harriet together by falling behind, speaking with a child, and pretending to lace her boots. Using the need for new ribbon to lace her boots as an excuse, Emma requests that they stop at Mr. Elton’s house at the vicarage, but even though Emma contrives to leave the would-be lovers alone there together, Elton fails to show interest in Harriet. Emma considers him slow but is not dissuaded in her plans.
Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley and their children arrive at Hartfield and temporarily occupy all of Emma’s attention. Mr. Woodhouse and Isabella commiserate over losing Mrs. Weston, and there is speculation about whether Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill, will make his visit. Isabella is like her father in both tenderness and nervousness, and Emma believes that Isabella’s sharp-minded husband sometimes speaks too sternly to Isabella and to the family.
Mr. Knightley comes to dinner at Hartfield, and though he and Emma still disagree about Harriet, they reconcile. Knightley tells Emma that Mr. Martin has been terribly disappointed by Harriet’s rejection. Isabella is filled in on all of the latest news from Highbury. She inquires after Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates’s niece, and suggests that Jane would make a good companion for Emma.
The conversation turns to Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley’s decision to go to Southend, a beach resort, instead of visiting the Woodhouses in the autumn. Mr. Woodhouse advocates the advice of a friend, Mr. Perry, who is an apothecary. All the while, Isabella maintains that her doctor, Mr. Wingfield, is more trustworthy. Emma tries to change the subject, and eventually Mr. John Knightley snaps that Perry should mind his own business. Emma and Mr. Knightley smooth things over.
When Emma visits the poor in Chapter 10, we see her desire to be “useful,” which she has emphasized throughout the novel, fulfilled in a new way. Her aspiration to be active and do good in the world is noble, especially considering the fact that her riches and her beauty might have left her content to fill her days in frivolous pursuits. Yet, Emma’s charitable acts—for example, the guidance she offers Harriet—often stem from her own vanity and are therefore harmful as well as helpful. The narrator clearly contrasts Emma’s romantic, misguided attitude toward Harriet with her attitude toward the poor, writing,
She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so little, entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will.
Austen seems to signal that in this sphere, a woman with Emma’s privilege and advantages can actually do good. The fact that Emma displays the capacity for genuine empathy and for a usefulness that exercises her intelligence more than her vanity bodes well for her improvement.
As Emma and Harriet depart, Emma undermines her goodwill by describing the poor as picturesque—“These are sights, Harriet, to do one good. . . . I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day.” However, Emma exhibits that she is aware of her fickleness and vanity when she adds, “[A]nd yet who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind?” Emma’s mixture of self-delusion and self-knowledge is complex, and it is ambiguous how much credit we are meant to give her for her assistance to the poor and how much condemnation she deserves for her rapid return to obliviousness.
In chapters 11 and 12, Austen provides context for Emma’s repudiation of marriage by focusing on the marriage with which Emma is most familiar—that of her sister and Mr. John Knightley. Isabella’s attentiveness to her children, husband, and father are admirable, but the novel’s treatment of Isabella as a simpler, less dynamic woman than her sister implies that it does not take very much intelligence or vigor to be a good wife and mother. Furthermore, Isabella and John’s gender-typical behavior is somewhat boring, as the two seem to lack the sort of charisma and personality we see in Emma and Mr. Knightley. Isabella is caring, emotional, and somewhat silly and weak, while John is rational and purposeful but too willing to damage the feelings of others.
As they conspire to keep the family peace, Emma and Mr. Knightley compare favorably to their siblings. Though Mr. Knightley is more reasonable and dignified than high-spirited, impulsive Emma, they share a similar intelligence and get along with each other very well. Their relationship does not seem to be built upon gender stereotypes, and their amiability suggests that Emma might in fact be satisfied in a married life.